With Work, It Could Be a Showstopper
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 9, 2007
Any restaurant at a multi-stage venue starts off with one big advantage -- a semi-captive audience -- and one bigger challenge -- to get several hundred theatergoers, some of whom want a solid meal and some of whom will only nibble, in and out within a relatively short time. It's the bastard child of a banquet hall and a cocktail reception.
The Roof Terrace Restaurant & Bar at the Kennedy Center isn't the only dinner option in the building (there is a cafeteria-style casual eatery down the hall, if one can find someplace to sit, and off and on there are vendors with snacks in the Grand Foyer), but it obviously has an advantage when it comes to customers looking for a nice pre-theater meal. It also has famously fabulous views of various memorials, including the new Air Force Memorial, which forks obligingly into the sky across the river, and frequently stunning, almost sentimental sunset tableaux.
Culinarily speaking, the restaurant has had its ups and downs over the years, currently tilting to the positive side, with attractive presentations and reticent salting, but it still seems to want a little serious detailing for such an upscale (and pricey) menu. One has the impression that one chef is keeping an eye on the trickier main ingredients -- coddling the lobster, for example, and timing the fish -- but leaving too much follow-up to less meticulous staff.
The restaurant doesn't make the best first impression, which is to say the bread basket needs reworking. The dark raisin bread is fair, though awfully dense for a side and rather fruity sweet for some of the appetizers, and the plain rolls are bland, also slightly sweet and with the odd, uniformly stiff texture of old-fashioned potato rolls: They seem to have been born stale.
Second impressions are better because the appetizers are generally reassuring. Potato-leek soup was very nice, moderately thick but not cream heavy, still with some potato texture and free of grit. The crab cake was lumpy and fresh tasting, a rarer compliment than it ought to be, but it was under-seasoned, and its marmalade relish almost equally retiring. At $16 for a single, it could offer more in terms of accompaniment.
The roasted beet and Stilton cheese salad with frisee was good in its parts, and generous, but a little puzzling in execution, since the three elements are plated separately and the wedge of cheese intact (and rather cool). If the dish came with any sort of crouton or cracker it wouldn't seem simply an attempt at cleverness, but to have to cut the cheese and then try to capture the frisee and the cubes of red and golden beets on the fork and still hold on to a bit of blue before it crumbles off -- or eat the cheese alone and use the greens as a palate cleanser -- is a distraction. (If I had to guess, I'd say the cheese was pre-plated as a convenience and the beets kept separate to prevent telltale color bleeding.) It's nice blue, though; I'd have it after the entree, myself.
But there's no excuse for careless prep, especially in dishes that can be plated in advance. One night's calamari and mussel salad had spent far too much time in the refrigerator. The mussels were chilly, which subdued the flavor and hardened the flesh, and the squid was actually icy inside (and although there were a dozen mussels, there were only three or four rings of squid).
A bowl of lobster and risotto made a promising entrance: The whole claw and curve of tail meat settled on top were beautifully tender and visibly moist, and the embedded peas a pure green with no trace of over-boiled gray. The milky lobster sauce -- the first taste -- was delicate and sweet. Unfortunately, the rice was several minutes short of done, the grains opaque halfway through and a hard nut at the core.
A meaty fillet of Alaskan sablefish (black cod) was cooked just to the flaky point and served over a puff pillow of leek mousseline. The orange-vanilla glaze was more sweet than acid, which might have offset the mouth-feel better, but even so, the sablefish was a welcome change from the ubiquitous salmon, and it has as much omega-3 fatty acids, for those of you keeping count. But the optional side of Brussels sprouts was reprehensible, unadorned and almost uncooked.
The lamb shank was well braised, though the broth could have used more flavor, and the parsnips with it were also underdone, still crunchy in the center and not yet sweet. And the tiny splinter of dried black truffle on top had no chance to participate in the shank's flavor. It would have done better to soak in the sauce.
The pork chop was fine, the red cabbage thoroughly cooked but not syrupy or sharp and the beans carefully salted. The only quibble was that the chop was cooked more than requested -- or it had been sitting under a heat lamp -- which seems to be a general problem for this on-deadline kitchen. (And we had to call the waiter back to specify a temperature.)
The half-bottle list might be the best part of the wine list, both for price and pre-theater moderation, and the drinks are not oversize, but not over-expensive either (although someone got a free glass of Malbec on us).
The bar, a lovely, old-fashioned, wood-paneled affair, seats about two dozen, and the full menu is available there as well. Thursday through Saturday, light fare and desserts are offered from 8:30 until a half-hour after the last curtain at the Opera House, Eisenhower Theater or Concert Hall.
It might be nice if the restaurant stayed open until at least 8:30 every night instead of closing at 8 four days a week, because it makes it difficult to stay through an entire Millennium Stage performance. One attempt at a 7:15 reservation was first accepted and then (via a call-back the next day) discouraged, albeit politely, for an earlier one that rather curtailed the evening. Or perhaps the light-fare menu could be extended on those other nights. And although it's understandable, indeed desirable, that the wait staff be willing to take an order promptly, the timing is often too abrupt; at least offer water or a drink first.
All in all, the Roof Terrace remains agreeable and promising, but perhaps it's time to upgrade the production to a level that suits the quality of the entertainment.